The Cars of 'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For' Drive Film's Hyperrealism

Sin City 2 Still - H 2014
Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

Sin City 2 Still - H 2014

Detroit classics, enhanced by visual effects, add noir atmosphere to sequel

The trailer for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For features private eye Dwight McCarthy, played by Josh Brolin, gripping the wheel of a speeding convertible as if it were his mortal enemy's neck.

Sin City, released in 2005, and the sequel, directed by Robert Rodriguez, are based on the works of graphic novelist Frank Miller, who wrote and co-directed both films.

Miller populates his novels with lovingly rendered classic cars, so unsurprisingly Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is crammed with gorgeous Detroit iron: a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, 1960 Corvette, 1959 Cadillac El Dorado, 1948 Tucker Torpedo, and the 1964 Ford Mustang driven by Brolin's hot-tempered private-eye.

Although the actual cars were photographed during production, each was also digitally re-created by the film's effects house, Prime Focus, so that the cars could be manipulated to blend with the film's art direction, inspired by the brooding look of Miller's novels. Digitizing the cars also allowed the filmmakers more latitude during the movie's surreal action sequences.

"All of the cars were modeled in the computer, using blueprints from the originals," Prime Focus's Stefen Fangmeier, the visual effects supervisor on the movie, tells The Hollywood Reporter. The scene above with Brolin, for example, was shot while the actor sat in a chair in front of a green screen holding a steering wheel -- the rest of the car and environment were digitally created later.

Because the look of the film toggles between photorealism and the noir-ish style of Miller's graphic novels, the filmmakers relied on Fangmeier and his team of visual effects artists to fine-tune the appearance of the cars to suit both aesthetics. 

"We would go into the cars and [digitally] highlight certain areas," Fangmeier explains. "Take a license plate and make it really black and really white, or really punch the white lines on the street, to get that Frank Miller look. But it also had to work with the photorealistic aspect of the shot."

In a scene adapted from a panel in Miller's A Dame to Kill For, a shot of Brolin driving the Mustang starts out in the novelist's visual style — the car is white and the background is black. But as the camera pushes in, the look shifts to the movie's photorealistic style — the car and palm trees in the background suddenly emerge in crisp detail.

Of all the cars in the movie, Fangmeier, whose credits also include Master and Commander and The Bourne Identity, was drawn especially to the Tucker Torpedo, a radical car design from the late '40s with three headlights that never entered mass production (the company's founder, Preston Tucker, was the subject of Francis Ford Coppola's 1988 biopic Tucker: The Man and His Dream.) 

"It had great curves for beauty lighting, it really lends itself well to that," says Fangmeier, who adds that the challenges of blending Sin City: A Dame to Kill For's visual styles "was a nice departure — I'd never done anything quite like it."